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"The Google Generation"

The phrase Tony Blair used on Thursday in his conference speech is examined in today's Guardian:

"Google isn't actually something I associate with young people any more," says Andy Hobsbawm, the European chairman and co-founder of the digital marketing company - and son of the decidedly non-digital Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm. "To me, it's part of the fabric of everyday living. It's too universal." By way of better signifying the youthful flash the PM was presumably after, Hobsbawm would recommend a quick dip into the discourse of marketing and advertising. "There are lots of different versions of the same concept," he explains. "It usually refers to the people for whom the internet and communications technology were in the world when they were born. A few years ago, somebody [Marc Prensky] wrote an article, Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, about the people for whom the world had always been that way, as against the ones who had to adapt to it. Everything else is just versions of that."

The broadest label, he explains, is Generation Y - those "born between 1977 and 2001, or thereabouts". Those who have focused specifically on the impact of technology have also talked about the Internet Generation ("probably born from the late 80s onwards"), and the IM - as in instant messaging - Generation. Then, in recent years, there has been much talk about the MySpace Generation, and even the Mypod Generation, "which is meant to be a combination of MySpace and iPod, but I think that's probably getting a bit silly".

Running through all these terms is a loose set of common assumptions: first, that this generation is globally attuned, propelling all kinds of cultural product, from Japanese cartoons to American indie rock bands, around the planet at extraordinary speed. How they might digest particular aspects of the media defies the old rules. In the US, for instance, there has been a great fuss about the fact that Jon Stewart's Daily Show is the most popular news outlet among those between 18 and 25. And their habits of interacting with the new media means that, often by word of mouth, small-scale internet operations can suddenly flower into huge concerns. Just as Napster heralded the decline of the compact disc, now YouTube makes traditional TV look positively stone age.

Most significantly, though, given the traits Tony Blair implicitly ascribes to the Google Generation, today's under-25s turn out not to conform to their caricature as consumerist slaves to all things "aspirational", but to be much more complicated. "Young people are still defined by what they consume - it's still important to have the right badges - but I'm not sure that's about any display of purchasing power," says Hobsbawm. "It's more about knowledge: being up with what's cool and interesting, defining yourself by what you do than rather what you buy."

And there's this, which certainly squares with how my sons and my younger friends are experiencing things, here in the UK and in Europe:

… the prime minister seemed to imply, they are the lucky pioneers of life on demand. But in stark contrast to all this, another version of the Google Generation represents today's young people as the victims of a historical curse. Earlier this year, there was a great buzz in the US about a book entitled Generation Debt, written by a 24-year-old Yale graduate named Anya Kamenetz, and cheerily subtitled "Why now is a terrible time to be young".

"I was born into a broke generation," she wrote. "I look around and I see people who have borrowed more to go to college than they can repay, who can't find a good job, can't save, can't make solid plans. Their credit card bills mount every month, while their lives stall on the first uphill slope. Born into a century of unimaginable prosperity in the richest country in the world, those of us between 18 and 35 have somehow been cheated out of our inheritance."

In Britain, the picture seems little different. "Debt is the ever-present conversation among my friends," says a university student I spoke to. "When we talk about the future, it's always, 'Will we ever be able to afford a house? Will we be able to get a decent pension?' It's kind of simultaneously normal and quite shocking. And even when it's kept in the background, it's there with just about all the people I know."

According to a view crystallised in the title of a recent report by the centre-right thinktank Reform, the Google Generation might easily be rebranded as the Ipod generation - "Insecure, pressured, over-taxed and debt-ridden". "You would think this generation have never had it so good, to quote another prime minister," says Andrew Haldenby, Reform's director. "The opportunities for international travel, education, very liberated social mores - it's a great time to be young, you would think. But then you start to look at people's circumstances and talk to young people themselves, and they expect to have a difficult career and be in a difficult economic position well into their 30s. They're probably going to have a low disposable income, difficulty getting on the housing ladder and high levels of debt."

By 2010, he estimates, the average graduate will be paying half their income in tax, loan repayments and newly high pension contributions. The future Haldenby foresees is of a glaring disjunction between the supposed opportunities of a hi-tech society and the lack of cash to actually pursue them.

John Harris goes on to look at the way this B-side of life in the Google Generation is reflected in contemporary pop songs. He concludes:

Those who are seeking to snare the attention of a supposedly digital generation should take note: among these people, the idea that new technology is worthy of comment is almost pathetically old-fashioned. Once you've implied that using the web is remarkable, you've probably lost them.

Trying to be politically hip with technology is just embarrassing, but this of course doesn't mean that we should settle for taking technology for granted. Good teachers spend a great deal of their time reminding themselves and their students that the world (and more) is remarkable —'worthy of comment'.


Talking of getting used to technology, I've just read Maciej Ceglowski's fine posting in his blog, Idle Words, about flying over the North Pole. It's a beautiful and characteristically amusing piece, finishing with this:

Passing over the North Pole hardly helps make the experience less dreamlike. Such flights were a novelty even into the 1950's; it's only within the last twenty years that routine passenger service over the Arctic have become technically possible, but already people are able to pull down the window shades and calmly watch the DaVinci Code or even just sleep through the whole spectacle. It makes me wonder if there is anything we can do to help our world recover its former vastness.

Back in 2004 I noted briefly how experiences of awe and wonder in relation to the net seem to have the power to excite and stir us, and that these experiences are in turn very important to a certain contemporary experience of interiority. That was a link to something Matt Jones wrote (reachable now via the Wayback Machine, here), linking to a John Naughton piece: 'Beautiful essay by Michael Benson in The Atlantic which brilliantly captures the sense of awe and wonder about the Net that first prompted me to write my book'. (A year ago I was couching this sense of awe-about-the-net in terms of 'net as labyrinthine library' — not so happy with that image now.)

More generally, imaginative, intelligent use of net-based and other technology in schools is helping us recover a sense of the world's still-remaining-vastness, and of our responsibilities therein, even as we continue to shrink distances and, to our great shame, make a Dusseldorf of everywhere. Out of so many examples I could take … yesterday evening I caught the first of the BBC's new 3-part series, Galapagos:

… the three fifty minute programmes explore the history, landscape and wildlife on the tiny cluster of islands, composed almost exclusively of volcanic rock, scattered in the South Pacific Ocean 600 miles west of mainland Ecuador. It was here that Darwin found the perfect conditions to formulate his evolutionary theory: far from the ravages of the continents, life evolved into a miniature world of specialised creatures who adapted to their harsh environment in a variety of ways. Blending photo-real 3D graphics with high-resolution satellite and aerial imagery, the programme reveals new perspectives on the Galapagos islands, with footage of its volcano summits, lava flows and impossibly blue sky and sea. Galapagos brings to viewers pictures of an incredible mix of polar and tropical species; from penguins and fur seals to flamingos and tropical fish, including evolutionary wonders such as Darwin's finches, land and marine iguanas, giant tortoises, waved albatrosses and sea turtles in some of their last habitats on earth.

BBC Post Production Bristol is providing a high definition tape-less post production solution to support Galapagos , to deliver high quality uncompressed HD programmes, whilst maintaining a smooth sustainable workflow. The ingest, storage, editing, effects, grading and archive system is based around a 9TB Sledgehammer HDIO NAS from Maximum Throughput and includes Lustre® and Smoke® from Autodesk Media and Entertainment. Identical to the post production solution BBC Post Production designed for the BBC's new landmark HD series Planet Earth , it ensures the highest quality of content is preserved and delivers an efficient and cost effective workflow. The programmes are being shot on the Panasonic Varicam, with Super 16mm used to capture particularly high speed moments, such as frigatebirds hunting on the wing. The main underwater work is being captured with Sony 750 and 900 cameras. Thermal cameras are being used to reveal the basking tactics of marine iguanas, whilst infra red cameras record petrels nesting at night and a digital stills kit condenses the passage of time with clouds, shadows, tides, stars and sun.

Series Producer, Patrick Morris says: "Never before has a series like this been made about the Galapagos Islands and, as natural history film makers, this compelling story goes right to the very heart of all that we do. The high definition pictures are beautiful and the post production solution provided by BBC Post Production Bristol will ensure that the highest quality is retained."

It could have been just "another nature programme", but it was really quite arresting: I don't watch much TV and this kept me watching — the strangeness of it all and some of the underlying science was engagingly visualised. I hope the next two episodes go into the science rather more, but it's encouraging to see what I assume is cutting-edge technology (not all of paragraph two makes sense to me, by any means!) being deployed to more than "Wow" ends.